Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Speed of Ideas - Part 3

Sunday, July 24. Still reeling from the death of Amy Winehouse and the tragedies in Somalia and Norway. It feels weird to be getting on a bike and listen to actors talk about their work at Shaw. I’m wearing my straw hat and sunglasses on a borrowed bike and total strangers are saying good morning to me. “It’s a beautiful day”, they say. It really is. I smile.

Great actors talk about working at the Shaw. They seem grateful which does my heart good. Many of them have done more plays in five seasons than I’ve done in my twenty-eight year career. If I’d heard any complaints, I just may have become violent.

Michael Billington from The Guardian (since 1971!) gave his address. What an incredible man. His talk was about the relevance of plays by Shaw to our times. The man knows his business and it is clear that he has a tremendous respect for the practitioners of theatre. I wish certain Toronto theatre writers had been in the audience. My favourite moment was when asked about gender- and colour-blind casting. His answer: “Why not?”

The directing panel. I must admit that it wasn’t my favourite. Other people loved it but since I have never had any interest in directing, it didn’t do as much for me. I must say it was a shock to hear how disparaging Morris Panych was of Shaw’s work (“boring”, “couldn’t remember reading it” “I stole Newton’s cuts from his production”). He was sitting right next to Jackie Maxwell! He must have been kidding.

And lastly, Suzan-Lori Parks! Somehow Philip got away with opening the conversation by asking her about her childhood nickname ‘Ledgebutt.’ He completely disarmed her and they spoke like old friends for the rest of their (too brief) time together. Suzan-Lori said that she learned to embrace the name that she was called and grew to “own” that butt of hers. She learned of the eighteenth century African woman who had a condition known as steatopygia, resulting in her having a very large behind. She was put on display in Picadilly Circus and in Paris until she died in 1815. A more perfect story couldn’t have presented itself to Suzan-Lori and Hottentot Venus, the play was born.

There are so many things I could write about Suzan-Lori Parks. The first person who suggested she write for theatre was James Baldwin; Canadian writer Carol Shields is the subject of one of her 365 plays; she uses an egg timer and earplugs when writing; “there is much more leeway for colour-blind casting in classic plays than in new plays…” Everything out of her mouth was an inspiration. The day before, someone had mistaken me for her. I found it amusing at the time and, after the conversation with Philip, I was downright honoured.

She signed my book and posed for a picture with me. I told her that I was writing for opera and hoped that she’d catch its debut in Chicago next year. I really hope I’ll get to see her version of Porgy and Bess which is opening soon in New York.

What I hope for the most is that she gets to see Topdog/Underdog (which she wrote in three days!) at Shaw or at its remount at the Theatre Centre in Toronto. She has a healthy habit of letting plays go and moving on to the next project. I can’t help but think how pleased she would be to rediscover this brilliant work of hers under Philip’s great direction, the superb acting of Nigel and Kevin and Camellia Koo’s smart design.

It was a great weekend. On Monday morning, I was up and writing at 7:30. Did I mention that I have a project that I’m submitting to the Shaw? They might get it sooner than expected.

Wish me luck.

The Speed of Ideas - Part 2

Saturday, July 23. I locked up the bike at the Court House Theatre and chatted with friends who had ventured to town to see Mr. Kushner including Andrea Scott (Who Knew Granny?); Robert Chafe (Tempting Providence); Aaron Willis and Julie Tepperman (Yichud); Barbara FIngerote (uber Toronto theatre fan) and Keira Loughren (New Play Development Coordinator, Stratford Festival).

Kushner was as intelligent, witty and passionate as one would expect and then some. On top of that he made his book signing a personal experience for everyone in line. Firstly, he didn’t sit at the table provided. There was no barrier between him and each person with whom he spoke. When he looked me right in my eye and told me it was nice to meet me, I believed him. I told him that what I loved about Angels in America was that he invited so many different people to be in it. He knew that what I meant was that he could have written exclusively from the Gay, Jewish, New York perspectives and that would have been fine but he included so much more. He asked me about my career and we talked about Jamaica. He said he would remember my name. It will be my goal to make sure that he doesn’t have to remember it; that it’ll just keep popping up because of my renewed zeal for writing, acting and promoting myself. He caught me so off guard that I didn’t get the chance to tell him that I was staying with the producer of the upcoming Toronto production of Caroline, or Change. Nor did I get to compliment him on his beautiful fountain pen. Philip, who appreciates and collects such things was very disappointed that I could tell him if it was a Waterman or Montblanc. Hey, I was meeting Tony Kushner. I’m lucky I didn’t pass out or say something stupid.

Lunch with Barbara FIngerote and her friend, Larry. Then ice cream and on to the Studio Theatre where Michael Healey talked about adapting On the Rocks (“I make sure to leave out the apostrophes just like Shaw did”) and John Murrell talked about his ongoing adaptation of Geneva (“I put in the apostrophes.”). Joanna Falck did a great job of keeping them on topic and fielding questions from the audience.

Later, Jackie Maxwell moderated the Reviving the Female Voice panel with Linda Griffiths, Ann-Marie MacDonald and Alisa Palmer. I was Chair of the Women’s Caucus of Playwrights Guild of Canada from 2006 – 10 so I was just the choir being preached to. But, I do give high praise to Jackie for uncovering so many lost or forgotten plays by women from Shaw’s time and commissioning current female playwrights to adapt older work such as Morwyn Brebner and the Lunch time hit The President (Molnar); Kevin Hanchard’s other play.

The Speed of Ideas Part 1

The Speed of Ideas: Shaw Festival Takes Bold Steps to Catch up with its Namesake

By Marcia Johnson

I have just returned from an exhilarating weekend at the Shaw Festival. Those words would lead you to believe that I was referring to seeing great theatre. Well, that is true. I did see Heartbreak House and On the Rocks (both by Shaw) and I also saw Pulitzer prize winner Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks and directed by Obsidian’s own Philip Akin. It was a two-hander cast with dream team Kevin Hanchard and Nigel Shawn Williams.

OK, I have to back up. The main reason for my visit was to take in The Speed of Ideas: A Theatrical Forum. The weekend event was held in celebration of Shaw Festival’s fiftieth anniversary season. The idea behind it was to celebrate the forward thinking of the festival’s namesake. George Bernard Shaw caused many a controversy in his day with plays touching on subjects that were not deemed suitable for polite society. Heartbreak House, which I had also seen in 1985 (both productions directed by Christopher Newton) is, among other things, a harsh view of England’s participation in the First World War. The comedy On the Rocks, in a new adaptation by Michael Healey is a scathing comic criticism of the British Prime Minister and his seeming ignorance and apathy toward the unemployed. Both plays were debuted uncomfortably close to the very events that inspired them.

Shaw was not afraid of ruffling feathers or pushing boundaries. But, can the same be said of the Festival that bears his name? Many would say no but there have been promising changes over the years. For many years, only plays written by Shaw or within his lifetime (1856 – 1950) were produced at the Festival. In 2000, the mandate was expanded to include plays written about that period of time, opening the door for original Canadian plays like Coronation Voyage by Michel Marc Bouchard. Most recently, the festival has invited plays that possess the spirit of “out of the box” thinking and social provocation that Shaw’s plays do. Enter Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks in the new Studio Theatre. The play, set in a rooming house, follows the complex relationship of two brothers living on the margins. We’ve come a long way since “Salute to Shaw” at the Court House Theatre in 1962.

But, I’m supposed to be talking about The Speed of Ideas. It began and ended with two Pulitzer-prize winning playwrights, Tony Kushner (Angels in America; Caroline, or Change) and Suzan-Lori Parks (Topdog/Underdog; Hottentot Venus). Between these two interviews were the panels: Inspired by Shaw, adapting Shaw for modern audiences; Reviving the Female Voice, the growing presence of plays by and about women at Shaw; Supermen/Superwomen, Festival ensemble members talk about acting in Shaw’s plays; a keynote address from The Guardian theatre critic, Michael Billington and Directing Shaw (which is exactly what it sounds like).

The big draw for me was the two playwrights. Angels in America is one of my favourite plays and I have been in awe of Suzan-Lori Parks ever since I found out about her writing a play a day over the course of a year (365 Days/365 Plays).

In the spirit of celebrating Shaw’s boundary-pushing ways and the inspiration that I received from hearing and meeting those two fabulous playwrights, I will now write a stream of consciousness essay to encapsulate my visit. I hope it makes sense.

July 21, catch the GO train to Burlington, switch to a GO bus and get off at St. Catharines. It is 38 degrees Celsius in Toronto. Is it supposed to be cooler here? It doesn’t feel like it. I push through the hot sticky air hop into a cab to Niagara-on-the-Lake. The luck continues because the driver, like me listens to CBC Radio and I happen to catch ALL of Paul Kennedy’s documentary on Marshall McLuhan. My favourite moment? McLuhan’s joke, Zeus says to Narcissus: “Watch yourself.”

This is my first time at the Studio Theatre which is nestled in behind the Festival Theatre. My date is Shaw Literary Manager, Joanna Falck. We are both blown away by the performance. At only the third preview, it is in excellent shape.

Philip Akin is my host for the weekend. That evening, Kevin Hanchard comes over with a box of chocolates and the two of us are treated to a wonderful home cooked meal. We catch up, laugh and gossi- ahem, talk about our work. What a great start.

Friday, July 22. Philip loans me a bicycle so that I can get around. It’s the first time I’ve been on a bike in seven years but it comes back to me eventually and Niagara-on-the-Lake is a perfect place for cycling. I see the matinee of Heartbreak House and happen to sit next to my former colleague Susan Feldman, producer of CBC Radio’s Writers and Company with Eleanor Wachtel. She had also seen the 1985 production and we both compared notes on what we remembered and liked from it. We were both impressed by this current production especially once Act Two began and the woman who had coughed all the way through Act One hadn’t returned.

Afterwards, I bought fudge and jam (it’s the law) and rode back “home”. I had the place to myself for the rest of the trip as Philip went back to Toronto and would come back in time for his interview on Sunday with Ms Parks.

Friday, July 22, 2011


There is an interesting article in the Moneyville section of the Toronto Star. As many of you may know I am adamantly opposed to unpaid internships especially those that seem to abound in theatre. And yes, I have heard all the rationalizations but the truth is that for many interns they are doing work that is a value add for the theatre company and they deserve to have that rewarded in a tangible financial manner. Even if they are not taking a job away from someone else usually the company touts their internship opportunities to the various levels of government to argue their case for more money because of their community outreach and yet that money does not flow to the interns.
Enough I say. If you can't afford it then don't do it.